Rejection hurts, and every writer has a different reaction to it. You might feel angry. You might take it personally – I’ve been there; I don’t blame you. After the initial shock wears off, my hope is that you’ll first wonder what went wrong.
If an editor or publisher doesn’t “ghost” you, they’re most likely not going to be very specific about why they can’t accept your article or pitch. Likely, you’ll get something generic, like, “We’re unable to publish your work at this time.” That doesn’t seem very helpful … because it isn’t. So how are you supposed to know what to do differently next time?
I’ve edited and written for a few sites and publications since my first stint as a magazine editor, but I got my real start as the coordinator of correspondent submissions for an online publication – meaning people would (sometimes) read our submission guidelines and send their pitch emails to a given email address, which I was assigned to check and manage daily.
I’ve both accepted and rejected plenty of article submissions at various stages of the publishing process. I have a sort of inside look at rejection in online publishing, and why, sometimes, it feels like you just can’t do enough to get published. It’s not easy. But it becomes less complicated once you see things from an editor’s point of view.
Assuming that you already know to read and follow submission guidelines (do that, please), here are some of the most common reasons I’ve rejected pitches in the past, and what you can do to avoid these mistakes when pitching to online publications. Trust me, it’s nothing personal. We want you to be successful. But you have to meet us halfway.
You made your pitch all about you
“Me first” pitching does not work. It is an immediate turnoff for me, and I’m sure many other editors out there (give a shoutout in the comments if you feel my pain). Let me be honest, for a second, and explain why that is. Editors often have inboxes filled with pitch submissions. Everyone wants their article published for x reason. Editors (“content managers”) have to sort through all of them and pick the best ones to accept. Time is everything. And if you can’t convince me, in the body of your email, to download and read your article, chances are, I never will.
I would love to hear all about the long road you took to come to the decision to write the article. I would love to know how long you’ve been writing, how passionate you are about it, how you can’t wait to share your ideas with the world. But that’s not what I need you to tell me in a pitch email. A few sentences of introduction will do – My name is Meg, I am an expert nutrition and fitness writer, I’ve published in these places and served as an editor for this thing – focusing on level of expertise and writing experience/educational background if necessary, and that’s it. Why are you credible? If you’re submitting an essay, summarize, in a sentence or two, what about your experience qualifies you to serve as a messenger for the things you wrote about in your essay.
Then you move on to your article, the publication you’re submitting to and why it’s important for the audience to read. If the publication chooses to accept your pitch, or even within the article itself depending on submission guidelines, you might get to write a bio of a few sentences. Talk about yourself there. Everything you say about you in your pitch should connect to the publication and purpose. No fluff. Your life story is important, just not in this context.
For more on pitching, read my rant about bad emails.
Your article didn’t belong in the publication you pitched to
I’ve written about this before in my LET’S GET PUBLISHED series, but don’t ever shop the same piece around until it finds a home – unless you’ve rewritten it to cater to a different audience each time. You can write an article first, if you want to, you can allow yourself the “freedom” to say whatever you want, but before you pitch to a certain place, you have to make sure it fits. You wouldn’t want to write an article speaking to 18 to 24-year-old college students specifically and then pitch it to a magazine for middle-aged moms.
You’re actually much better off choosing a publication you want to submit to and then crafting it based on specific guidelines, audience and voice. You might remember that I gave the opposite advice in a post I published over a year ago. The same way I hope you’re growing as writers, I am, too. While it doesn’t necessarily matter whether you write first, search second, or vise versa, you need to make sure the editor can tell you’ve researched their publication thoroughly enough that you understand exactly what they are looking for, down to message, word choice and style.
Yes, even those small things can make a difference. I am an editor for a blog about mental health. We do not use the phrase “mental illness.” If you read through past articles, you’ll notice we use less harsh phrasing. If you were to submit an article that used the phrase “mental illness,” I’m much less likely to accept it, because your attention to detail matters to me and to the publication. Just an example.
You didn’t show your understanding of the publication
Audience, purpose, what kinds of content they publish, what they stand for … everything. I ignored every single email I ever got that started with “I stumbled upon your blog and want to pitch a guest post.” It’s one thing if you’re pitching to a blogger, I suppose (though still too generic, IMO), but this email was going to the managing editor of a magazine. The senders of those emails clearly did not look into what the publication even was – a magazine, not a blog. That tells me they did zero research and weren’t interested in writing for my magazine, for my audience. They were interested in reaching out to anyone who might consider publishing their work. Please don’t do that. Research. Research. RESEARCH.
I would suggest, before you pitch to a publication, reading as much recent material from that publication as you can, not just the about page. Most likely, the pieces that have been published have been written and edited to match exactly what an editor wants to see. If you can present a pitch and/or article that shows you’ve done this, an editor is much more likely to give you a chance.
The most important thing to know about writing for publications is that it’s about the publication and the audience who reads it. You’re not as free to write about whatever you want, however you want, as you might be when publishing on your own blog. That’s a sacrifice you have to be willing to make if you’re trying to get published to “get your name out there.” You’re writing for someone else. The more you can prove you’re capable of conforming to different standards, the more success you are likely to have.
Editors are very busy people, and they don’t get a lot of credit, if any, for the work they do. Be courteous, but also, don’t waste their time. If an editor could publish every single piece of content they received, they would. More articles often mean more ads and more money for the publication’s owner and/or company. But there are standards beyond the submission guidelines you skim before sending an email. Every pitch is about the content, the publication and who would read it if it gets published. Focus on those things when pitching, and you’ll likely have much more luck in the future.
I do not like talking about myself. That one or two sentences at the beginning of every pitch or proposal I send, where I have to tell people who I am and what I’m good at, is the hardest part for me. It makes me cringe. Get to a point where you’re more excited to talk about how your article can help other people than you are about what it’s going to do for you. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.